Never Die Alone

Posted on March 21, 2004 at 3:51 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language, including the n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters deal drugs, drug use, overdoses, drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme peril and graphic violence, many character deaths
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This movie’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness — it wants to be more than the usual drug dealer shoot-em-up. It deserves some credit for its ambitions. But those ambitions tip it over into pretentious melodrama that only emphasizes how far short of its aspirations it falls.

Rap star DMX plays “King” David, a drug dealer who has come home to New York to make his peace with his former boss, Moon (Clifton Powell). David took Moon’s drugs to California and used it to start his own very successful drug distribution business. He offers to pay Moon whatever he asks to make up for it. Moon’s men come to collect the money but emotions get out of hand and David is mortally wounded.

Paul (David Arquette), sees David lying in the street and drives him to the hospital. David asks Paul to find his son and tell him that “his old man was a warrior.” leaves Paul his car. In the car, Paul finds tapes hidden in a hollowed-out Bible. David, knowing that he was on a collision course with a violent end, found that telling the story of his life on tape “helps ease the pain. It’s all I have left.”

Paul, a writer who has been searching for a way to tell the story of the streets, has found it. He is fascinated with David’s “nobility.” As Paul listens to the tapes, we see King David’s arrival in Los Angeles with the drugs he stole from Moon, and we watch him use that stash to make connections with customers and suppliers to build a business. His first connection is a small-time starlet (her role is “just cable, and it’s only recurring), who becomes his girlfriend and introduces him to other buyers with access to a lot of money. When it is time for him to buy more cocaine and heroin, he insists on the very best quality. David meets a woman he really cares for because she is “beautiful, intelligent, and uncorrupted.” Then he corrupts and destroys her, because caring for her made him feel weak. Abusing her made him feel “loved and appreciated.”

DMX gives David power and dignity. But the character is already so corrupt and empty that it is impossible to find the “nobility” Paul sees in him. David does not learn or grow or change for the better or worse, and so there is no sense of journey to move the story forward. Overly melodramatic flourishes and overly symbolic images also separate us from the characters. A coffin is pushed into the flames of a crematorium as a car drives into a tunnel. A writer banging on a typewriter instead of a laptop and a slinky nightclub chanteuse recall the gangster movies of the 1930’s. And a relationship revealed at a critical moment is intended to bring everything full circle, but just feels manipulative.

Parents should know that this movie is about people who are engaged in crime and corruption. It has constant and extreme violence, including many graphic murders. The main characters are drug dealers, and the movie includes drug use (heroin and cocaine) and overdoses, including a mother whose overdose is discovered by her children. Characters use extremely strong and hostile language, including the n-word, and they treat each other with emotional as well as physical brutality. There are explicit sexual references and situations, including a graphic sex scenes and a threesome involving twins.

Families who see this movie should talk about how the characters decided what was important to them. Who are their role models? Why? What does it mean to say that “we reap what we sow?” Why does David want his son to know that “his father was a warrior?” Was he? Why was Paul so interested in telling that story? Was Paul’s girlfriend right about why he was seeing her? What is the reason for the title? Who in the movie does die alone?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the movies that helped to inspire its characters, including Scarface and The Godfather. They will also appreciate New Jack City and Tupac: Resurrection.

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The United States of Leland

Posted on March 21, 2004 at 9:53 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use, including heroin, drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Violence, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Strong African-American character
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

The murder mystery at the center of this overly plotted but beautifully acted movie is not the who but the why.

Leland (Ryan Gosling) seems like a reasonably pleasant and easy-going kid. And then one day he kills a developmentally disabled boy, the brother of his girlfriend. It isn’t that no one seems to know the reason. It seems that there just was no reason. Leland had always been polite to everyone and kind and gentle with the boy, volunteering to walk him home from school.

A cop dismisses Leland as just another SFK (sick f-ing kid). But he does not seem angry or violent or unstable. He does not even seem upset. He is cooperative and truthful, so placid that his affect is almost entirely flat.

In the juvenile facility where Leland is put in “special treatment,” he hands his teacher an American history workbook. He has amended the cover to say “The United States of Leland.” The teacher, a frustrated writer named Pearl (Don Cheadle), is intrigued. Pearl is stuck in his own writing and cannot find a way to tell his own story. He thinks maybe he will be able to tell Leland’s.

Leland’s father (co-producer Kevin Spacey) is also a writer, a very successful novelist who can write about people with enormous sensitivity and compassion but is aloof, even merciless in his interactions with other people. He cannot do much to help Leland, but he can stop Pearl from appropriating and exploiting his story.

But Leland wants someone to listen, and Pearl is all he has. Will Pearl, or Leland’s father, or Leland himself understand why Leland committed such a terrible crime? Will we? Or is knowing that we cannot really know what matters?

I am not sure even the people who made the movie have the answer to that one. The script has the overheated, overblown, over-everything feel of an actor’s exercise extravaganza. Each character has some major emotional challenge and it gets overloaded and distracting. But the individual moments, especially Gosling’s performance, are sensitive and moving and the issues of the damage we inflict on ourselves and each other are worth examining, even less than successfully.

Parents should know that this movie has very mature themes. A teenager murders a developmentally disabled boy. Characters drink (reference to alcohol abuse), smoke, take drugs (a teenager is addicted to heroin), and use extremely strong language. There are sexual references and situations.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Leland showed no emotion about what he did. Why was telling the story important to him? Why eas it important to Pearl? What did Leland’s father want for Leland? Why was Mrs. Calderon so important to Leland? What does the story of Pearl’s name tell us?

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Ordinary People, Manic (also starring Cheadle), The River’s Edge, Permanent Record, and Eqqus.

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Never Die Alone

Posted on March 21, 2004 at 8:33 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters are drug dealers; drug use and drug overdoses shown
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense and graphic peril and violence, many characters killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004
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Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

Posted on March 21, 2004 at 7:22 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Mild schoolyard language ("screwed up")
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril that may be too intense for younger viewers
Diversity Issues: All characters white
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Scooby fans will enjoy this affectionate live-action tribute to the unquenchably popular cartoon series.

Wisely abandoning the first version’s wobbly attempt to appeal both to children with silly scares and older teens with self-aware irony and double entendres, this one is a straight-on re-enactment of the cartoon classic, with some of the series’ most memorable bad guys, including The Pterodactyl Ghost, The Black Knight Ghost, Captain Cutler’s Ghost, and The 10,000 Volt Ghost, uniting in a sort of all-star reunion of a scarefest.

The Mystery Inc. ghostbusters — Fred (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Geller), Velma (Linda Cardellini), Shaggy (Matthew Lillard), and Scooby-Doo (computer graphics plus the rowlfy voice of Neil Fanning) — are being feted at the gala opening of an exhibit devoted to their adventures at the Coolsonian Museum. As they walk down the red carpet, they are greeted by television reporter Heather (Alicia Silverstone) and each of them has a group of devoted fans. But the gala is distrupted when what they thought was a replica of The Pterodactyl Ghost turns out to be the ghost itself.

Before long, the all of the costumes from the exhibit are stolen and Heather has made the MI-ers look incompetent and arrogant.

Each member of the gang feels responsible. Shaggy and Scooby in particular want to show the others that they can be heroes, too. It will take all of their courage and skill to vaporize the ghosts and un-mask the culprit. Is it Old Man Wickles (Peter Boyle), his one-time prison cellmate Jacobo (Tim Blake Nelson)? Or could it be Patrick, the Coolsonium Museum curator (Seth Green)? The skills and loyalty — and appetite — of the whole crew will be necessary to save the day.

The special effects are fun, especially a silly disco dance number starring Scooby in a huge Afro wig to a cover of Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again),” and the action sequences have energy and humor. But the characters are, well, cartoonish, and for anyone but hard-core fans who will recognize every reference to each of Scooby’s many cartoon incarnations, any charm in seeing them played by actors on the big screen wore off sometime ten minutes into the first one.

Parents should know that the characters are in frequent peril that is intended to be comic but that may be overwhelming for some children. No one is hurt, but the ghosts and monsters are ghoulish looking and some kids may find them more scary than silly. A kick in the crotch is intended as humorous. The movie has some crude potty humor and some mild language (“butt,” “screwed up”). There is a particularly annoying product placement for Burger King. Parents will want to make sure that kids do not try some of the stunts in this movie, including squirting whipped cream directly into their mouths. There are endless myths about hidden meanings in “Scooby-Doo,” especially drug references or innuendos. People looking for such references may think that after Shaggy squirts whipped cream into Scooby’s mouth, he then “huffs” the nitrous oxide. However, there is no evidence that this is the intent of the scene.

Families who see this movie should talk about what it means to use a comment “out of context.” What did Heather do to make Fred’s statements seem as though they meant something other than what he intended? Why was it hard for Velma to believe that Patrick liked her? What do you think of Daphne’s comment that “The object of a healthy relationship is to never let them know you have flaws?” Why did Shaggy think he was not helping his friends? What did he learn? Why was it so easy for Heather to change so many people’s minds about the Mystery Inc. folks? What helps you decide what you think about people in the news?

Families who enjoy this movie can find out more about Scooby and the rest of Mystery, Inc. at the official website. To find the original appearances of some of the ghosts in this movie, check out this episode guide. And families will enjoy some of the Scooby-Doo classics, like Scooby-Doo’s Original Mysteries, with the series pilot featuring the Black Knight and Old Man Wickles.

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Dawn of the Dead

Posted on March 19, 2004 at 8:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Cigarette smoking, reference to alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Cannibalism, near constant intense peril, grotesque childbirth, death of characters, extremely graphic violence, very scary
Diversity Issues: Strong minority and female characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Have you ever wanted a fresh start? To live in a shopping mall without needing your credit card? How about if these fantasies and more were writ large in a movie scary enough to remind you how good life is even without forgotten pasts and satiated consumer desires? By the time the opening credits roll, “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) amply demonstrates that it will be the blood-stained, armored bus to get you there. Where “there” is, though, may not suit your –ahem— tastes unless you are a fan of a particular horror sub-genre, the zombie flick.

This remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 sequel to Night of the Living Dead soups up the zombies, takes the gross-factor to eleven, and has a lot of cheeky in-jokes about its predecessor.

The basic plot remains the same. For unknown reasons, people across the country are turning into blood-thirsty, animated corpses with rotting visages only an undertaker could love. The morning after the outbreak of a mysterious “virus”, an unlikely group of humans still capable of thought and speech converge on an empty shopping mall outside Milwaukee to escape the marauding zombies, who were until then the friends, families, neighbors of the survivors. As they fortify their defenses against the peril outside the mall walls, they must also face the threats they pose to one another. Unspecified days pass in a haze of mall enjoyment and zombie sniping until the remaining survivors opt to make a break for the nearby marina in order to escape by boat to a –hopefully—deserted island in Lake Michigan.

Besides the musical touches (ironic mall muzak includes “All by Myself”), the humor in this movie is predominately referential. Fans of Romero’s work will note the cameos by Tom Savini (special effects artist on the 1978 version) as the televised sheriff, Scott Reiniger (who played Roger DeMarco) as the General, and Ken Foree (survivor Peter Washington in the original) as the fire and brimstone preacher. Additionally, mall stores include “Wooley’s Diner” (Wooley was the SWAT team leader in the first version) and “Gaylen Ross” (the actress who played survivor Francine).

In comparison with the original, gone are the shrieking blondes and rampaging looters, while in are smart, controlled Ana (Sarah Polley as a believable nurse not afraid to wield a fire poker) and Kenneth (Ving Rhames) who is exactly the kind of cop you want walking beside you if you are facing scores of the undead. Also gone are the shambling zombies of yore. While they still wander aimlessly for the most part, when properly motivated by the presence of the living, the undead dart across parking lots, run after cars, bash through wooden obstacles, climb fences and dart through doggy doors. The pregnancy of one of the main characters is not the life-giving promise it was in the first movie. But it is in the end that the 2004 version differs most greatly from the original. (Spoiler: audience members looking for a somewhat happy ending will sprint to the exits the moment the final credits begin to roll, thus avoiding the nihilistic epilogue which is interwoven in the credits.)

If you are a fan of the horror genre, much less a “(Noun) of the Dead” fan, then this flick is a welcome, if derivative, fright-fest in the school of Romero’s classics. It is an entertaining enough trip to the kind of horror fantasy land that provides escape from ho-hum routines but ultimately it glorifies the simple pleasures exemplified in the movie’s opening scenes, of coming home from work to Date Night with your spouse, of a dear, precious normal life.

Parents should know that this movie is extremely violent, gory, and scary. Most of the characters die terrible and explicit deaths. The squeamish will be particularly disturbed by a scene of childbirth and the resulting mayhem. Characters amuse themselves by shooting zombies milling in the parking lot around the mall. There are two explicit sexual situations, including a tender one between a married couple.

Families who watch this movie might wish to discuss the different approaches taken by the survivors and the range of choices that they make. Are there times when the moral answer is at odds with the instinct to survive? How would you handle this variance?

While devoid of the aloof sexiness of the vampire or the feral force of the werewolf, the zombie continues to grip the imagination of story tellers and movies on the subject are legion. Families who enjoy this movie should see the 1978 original as well as the other two in the series, Night of the Living Dead and, the weaker, Day of the Dead. 28 Days Later is a tighter movie that deals with the many of the same themes, featuring zombie-like victims of infection. The Evil Dead series featuring zombie-like demons, especially Army of Darkness, is a classic of the genre.

For many more zombie movies, families might refer to this slightly dated but entertaining list from 1932”s White Zombie to 2002’s Resident Evil.

Those who find themselves discussing what they would do to survive in this situation might be interested in reading the humorous Zombie Survival Guide.

Families who are intrigued by similar themes of survivors isolating themselves from the infected and amusing themselves to pass the time, might enjoy The Decameron (mature content), G. Boccaccio’s classic book of 14th century nobles sitting out the plague.

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